With the biggest contracts now signed in free agency I wanted to take a look at how each position fared at the top and compare the averages to where they stood last season. For some positions 2017 has been a banner year and for others it has not moved much despite the large amounts of cap space that teams had and continue to have this year. Today we will look at the offense and in a day or two do a breakdown of the defense.
The clear cut winner in free agency was the guard position. For some time guards had been in a bit of a salary freeze but a big rebound began in 2016 and the market exploded in 2017 as teams are investing heavier in their lines. Six contracts signed in 2017 were high enough to be valued in the top 10 at the position and the top 20 floor was raised from about $4.8 million at the end of 2016 all the way to $6.35 million. Overall the top 20 average was raised a whopping 23% this year. At this point in time only 3 contracts signed before 2016 rank in the top 20, compared to 11 last December. So it’s a good time to be a free agent if you can play either guard position.
For years right tackles have been completely de-valued by NFL teams. My thought is that more and more teams are shifting draft picks to the right side hoping they can develop into left tackles which has put a squeeze on the position, but there was some movement this year with three new contracts entering the top 10. While that’s nowhere near the growth of the guards, Ricky Wagners contract with the Lions was a positive sign and it does seem that a static market is developing where teams are willing to go into the $6 million per year range for any capable veteran. A few years ago only the best players were moving into that range so this may be a sign of something positive for veterans in the future.
While the top of the left tackle market did see a new market leader in Russell Okung, the real driver for tackles were all those players that signed contracts in the $11M range. The left tackle position, which saw a downturn about 3 years ago, has basically become no different than the quarterback position at this stage with so many players, regardless of talent level, lumped close together in salary in part because of the declining options coming into the NFL from college. There are still a number of left tackles playing on old contracts and the floor barely moved at all since many of the new contracts simply represented a reshuffling of players, but we saw players get bigger contracts than they would have just a year ago which was a positive for the players.
I expected more from the receivers in free agency and it did not materialize. For the most part the growth in the salary averages is attributed to a $17 million a year extension signed by Antonio Brown. If that contract is taken out the growth overall was less than 1%. Free agency only saw one contract move into the top 10- DeSean Jackson’s three year $11.1 million contract- and the top 10 floor remained at $11M.The only other contracts to move into the top 20 all came right at the bottom of the tier taking over spots 17, 18, and 20. That said this is nothing new as teams seem more and more wary of adding in free agency at this position as even last season all the movement is basically on extensions.
Nobody expected much from the tight ends since there were no marquee names, but a few mid tier contracts popped into the top 20 which was enough to give some growth. That said the top of the market had a pullback overall with Julius Thomas taking a paycut and that may continue further once details are released of Dennis Pitta’s renegotiated contract. I think this could be a position to keep an eye on in the future for bigger drops since many of the top contracts- Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Thomas, Charles Clay, and some others- all seem pretty overvalued.
With Mike Glennon failing to make it into the top 20 the only growth at the position came from Kirk Cousins expensive franchise tag. Dropping out of the top 20 were Jay Cutler and Tyrod Taylor I’d expect Tony Romo and Brock Osweiler to drop out too. The top 20 floor dropped overall from $17.5 to $16 million. Of course free agency is almost never a place to find quarterbacks so all eyes will be on the contract extensions that could be coming up for Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees to see if the position can climb higher or will max our around Andrew Luck’s close to $25 million a year deal.
Everyone on the line benefitted from free agency except centers. Center is one of those positions with almost no middle ground. Teams seem to either spend a great deal of money on the center or just go with a rookie. The big damage to the average salary structure was the release of Nick Mangold who signed a near $7.8 million contract all the way back in 2010. The biggest contract signed in free agency came in under $6 million so it did not offset the loss. The floor is under $2M for centers though that should grow as the year moves on and players are extended, but I think it is a real question as to how many teams will spend top dollar at the position.
This is a position that has been de-valued for a few years now and the loss of Adrian Peterson’s $14 million contract more or less gave it no chance of recovery this year. 2017 added three contracts into the top 15- Le’Veon Bell’s $11M franchise tender, Latavius Murray’s $5M contract, and Eddie Lacys $4.25 million contract. Depending on what decisions teams make with certain players it’s possible the top 20 floor will drop to below $3 million by the summer as there should be questions about the futures of Jonathan Stewart, Ryan Mathews, Doug Martin, and Chris Ivory, at least at their current salaries.
The following tables show the average salary by position for the top salaried players and the growth in salaries from the end of last season.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.